When Hon’mana Seukteoma recalls her childhood, she thinks of Lukeville, Arizona. Located just over two hours south of the state capital of Phoenix, this tiny Southern Arizona town is home to roughly 35 residents, thousands of organ-pipe cacti, and, most notably, a United States port of entry that connects Mexico’s Carretera Federal 8 to Arizona’s State Route 85.
A 21 year-old college student and member of the Tohono O’odham (AW-thum) Nation, Seukteoma noted that crossing the U.S.-Mexico border through Lukeville was a regular part of her childhood on the reservation. “When I was younger, my family would take me to go see our other family across on the Mexico side,” she reminisced in an interview with the HPR. “Lukeville was the city that we would go through.” Seukteoma said that several members of the tribe cross the border “weekly, monthly, and even daily” to visit family, receive medical care, access water sources, and observe religious traditions including All Souls, the salt pilgrimage, and an annual pilgrimage to Magdalena, Mexico.
Centuries before European colonists arrived, the Tohono O’odham—which translates to “Desert People”—thrived in the areas now known as Southern Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. But the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and subsequent Gadsden Purchase bisected the tribe’s land, permanently separating the Tohono O’Odham people along an international border.
Despite its distinct presence along the border, the Tohono O’odham Nation has been silently plagued for years by drug cartel activity, border-related violence, illegal migration, human trafficking, and other blights. In the interest of national security, the U.S. federal government has militarized tribal land. Its efforts have included the installment of surveillance towers, stadium lights, and drones, according to Professor James D. Diamond, who directs the Tribal Justice Clinic at the University of Arizona College of Law and works closely with the tribe.
But to the Tohono O’odham Nation, such militarization fails to protect the land and its people, and simultaneously undermines tribal autonomy. In an interview with the Arizona Daily Star, tribal director of public safety Richard Saunders admitted that “members can’t hunt anymore without triggering a sensor,” insinuating that such surveillance has been detrimental to the traditional livelihoods of O’odhams. Because routine border searches do not require a warrant and nonroutine border searches solely mandate reasonable suspicion (as opposed to probable cause), Diamond noted that tribal members have been subjected to searches “by federal law enforcement without any legal justification.” Moreover, tribal members assert that illicit activity has only persisted in the wake of increased militarization, citing vigilante border patrols as harmful consequences of the crackdown on illegal migration. Their comments contrast those of the federal government, which claimed that since the issuance of recent executive orders to tighten immigration enforcement, illegal border crossings have dropped significantly.
No O’odham Word for Wall
Most recently, the U.S. federal government issued an executive order to build a wall extending across the U.S.-Mexico border in the interest of national security. Seukteoma is just one of over 10,000 resident members of the Tohono O’odham Nation threatened by the prospect of a border wall. She and other tribal members claim the wall could not only impede religious rites and familial traditions, but also negatively impact the flora and fauna of the area by inhibiting seed distribution and access to vital water sources by both animals and ranchers in the region.
Moreover, such a wall could impinge on tribal sovereignty—a concept that formed the cornerstone of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s efforts to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. The Commerce Clause of the Constitution gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes,” thus stipulating that tribes are sovereign entities and should be treated as such. Diamond noted that Chief Justice John Marshall referred to Native tribes as “domestic dependent nations” in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), reaffirming their relative autonomy in the eyes of the federal government.
On February 19, the Tohono O’odham tribal government released a video to oppose the proposed border wall, noting that there is “no O’odham word for wall” and entreating the federal government to respect tribal sovereignty by backing down on its construction.
Meanwhile, the tribe also hopes to curb the illicit activity that has ravaged its land for decades. In an official tribal statement, the Tohono O’odham Nation expressed its commitment to working with the federal government and using “proven and successful techniques” to enhance national security at the border without the wall. Seukteoma noted that O’odhams have been cooperating with executive agencies for decades with respect to issues of national security. “It’s been a very long road to get to where we are and have good relationships with customs agents. But with the wall, there would be increased militarization and more authorities. Day-to-day interaction would be overwhelming,” she admitted.
As such, several independent groups have taken to protesting the proposed border wall, such as Indivisible Tohono, a grassroots organization of which Seukteoma is a member. In April, the group organized a protest at Arizona Senator John McCain’s Tucson office to “urge him to publicly and formally oppose the border wall,” explained Seukteoma. “Following the protest, four women who established [Indivisible Tohono] went to talk to his staff,” she recalled.
Rebecca Cohen was one of the four. Shortly after graduating from Harvard in 2012, the New York native moved to Southern Arizona to work as a college and career mentor at a high school on the reservation. Last autumn, Cohen, along with three fellow activists, established Indivisible Tohono in a response to the political change that swept the nation.
Since its inception, the group has coordinated several events—including a recent educational panel featuring tribal leaders and legal experts—to spur tribal members into action. She noted that shortly after the panel, several O’odhams asked Indivisible Tohono to coordinate more community events to advocate against the proposed border wall. “People want to get involved and people are concerned,” Cohen told the HPR. “There’s a lot of energy … we just decided as a group that we wanted to keep that energy harnessed and move it forward.”
Vigilantism at the Border
Indivisible Tohono and the tribal government aren’t the only organizations pushing for tribal sovereignty in the wake of the proposed wall. The Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona College of Law has also indirectly espoused this cause through its International Human Rights Advocacy Workshop. Recently, it filed a petition against the United States through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for the federal government’s failure to protect Southern Arizona residents from vigilante justice at the border.
“This was a movement where citizens were taking the law into their own hands by patrolling the border looking for illegal migrants or those who were smuggling drugs,” explained Diamond in an interview with the HPR, emphasizing that these frequent vigilante patrols disrupted the welfare of tribal members living near the border. “[The vigilantes] would show up in military-style vehicles, dressed in military-style clothing, and armed with military-style rifles and they would interrogate people they came upon, and even attempt to detain them for law enforcement personnel.”
In the petition, the International Human Rights Advocacy Workshop argued that the federal government was encouraging such vigilante patrols to continue instead of stopping them. Diamond noted that the petition is still pending.
The petition exemplifies the means by which the Tohono O’odham Nation could harness international human rights law to prevent the construction of the border wall. “International law says that the militarization of indigenous land should be resisted unless it’s clearly in the public interest,” explained Diamond, indicating that the border wall would not only be disruptive to the lifestyles of the O’odham people, but could also be litigated in international human rights court.
Many Arrows and a Double-Edged Sword
But the Tohono O’odham Nation also seeks cooperation with the federal government to mitigate grievous border crime by vigilantes and drug cartels.
While the tribe remains committed to working with the federal government to curb national security threats, Cohen questioned whether the government has the tribe’s best interests at heart. As an educator, she witnessed the government’s failure to provide sufficient resources to Bureau of Indian Education schools on the reservation. Cohen claims these schools have been “systematically neglected” for decades and suffer from crumbling facilities, dilapidated buildings and a “lack of basic supplies and basic personnel.”
“If the government was one-eighth as interested in providing funding for quality education for our students on the reservation as it is in pouring money into border security, we would have a much better school system,” Cohen asserted. She noted that the contemporary budgetary priorities of both the state and federal governments do not truly respect the needs of the O’odham people, “who are just as much citizens as anyone else in our country, but who have been neglected and have been left out of the conversation for decades.” Cohen continued: “And to this day, they continue to be left out of the conversation, especially when Donald Trump issues an executive order that directly impacts their ancestral land. Does he even know that there’s a reservation along the border line?”
When it comes to alleviating the injustice imposed upon the Tohono O’odham Nation by the prospect of a border wall, “every solution brings more complications,” said Diamond. He has identified a “many-arrows” approach by which the tribe could prevent the wall’s construction: domestic litigation, invoking international human rights law, direct resistance, and increasing its own enforcement of border protections. But each of these methods bears its own obstacles, and each endeavor the tribe undertakes to reaffirm its sovereignty can quickly be interpreted by the federal government as a disregard for national security.
In a recent presentation at an immigration federalism conference in Tucson, Diamond noted the tribe could utilize several federal environmental and religious statutes in advocating against the proposed border wall. He specifically pointed to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the National Environmental Protection Act, which the tribe could respectively harness to argue that the wall both impedes its members’ religious rites on tribal land and harms the flora and fauna of the area. But Diamond cautioned that Native peoples have previously been unsuccessful in advocating for their religious freedom and their land because “the federal courts have been giving the U.S. government broad latitude in waiving [these statutes] in issues of national security.” This evinces the rights afforded to tribal members are far from inalienable.
The Future of the Frontier
Ultimately, the Tohono O’odham Nation hopes to reconcile its fundamental desire to alleviate the illicit activity plaguing its land with its commitment to preserving its sovereignty. A lack of mutual understanding between the federal government and the tribe has only exacerbated this struggle, while the absence of a comprehensive solution has only contributed to the ambiguity surrounding this issue.
But amidst this quandary, the O’odham people can agree on one thing: they deserve a speaking role in the national conversation about the wall. Diamond recalled that as a result of a Clinton-era executive order, Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each had “an obligation to consult with … tribes when contemplating actions which [would] materially affect them.” But under the Trump administration, the statute has yet to be explicitly reaffirmed. As such, both the tribal chairman, Edward Manuel, and vice chairman, Verlon Jose, have repeatedly asked for a “seat at the table” with federal officials when it comes to tribal issues, including the increased militarization of Tohono O’odham land. The border wall is no exception.
“On a psychological level, it’s disturbing,” lamented Cohen, noting that many of her students on the Tohono O’odham reservation have been racially profiled and searched by Border Patrol agents so frequently that they have grown to feel like “criminals by default in their own communities.”
But amidst the desolation of an increasingly militarized homeland, Cohen acknowledges a silver lining. “In some ways, I’ve seen the political consciousness of my students blossom now that they have something worth fighting for,” she told the HPR. “I’ve seen [them] really come into their own and have a platform for speaking about their environment, their community, and their land in a way that they never had before. In the past, my students never felt like they had to fight for something as strongly as they do now.”
Cohen paused, reflective. “It’s been really, really profound to see how they are standing up for themselves and for their tribe.”
Image Credit: Steve Hillebrand / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service